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Thomas v. Hill: Of Human Bondage

Female Trouble

The Hill/Thomas hearings were a blast of clarity for the women’s movement — all those male Democrats cozying up to Clarence Thomas, seducing Anita Hill into testifying and then, repelled by any association with a women’s cause, abandoning her. Another sorry revelation: a major­ity of women told pollsters they doubted Hill. We need those women to elect feminists to public office, to storm Washington before Roe v. Wade is overturned. We’ve got to acknowledge what attracts them to the status quo.

Hill passed a lie detector test. She had nothing to gain and everything to lose by testifying. She spoke credibly, weaving a story about Thomas he then proceeded to act out. Hill described a man who was crude, inept, driven. He asked for a date but couldn’t take no for an answer. He hammered away, wanting to know why he was being turned down. He used his authority to feel big at the expense of making a woman feel small.

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Even during the first round of hearings, he was a bull, refusing to discuss his legal positions, guilt-tripping the white Senate with depictions of the racial discrimination he’d made a career of dismissing but then evoked as the cross he had to bear. After Hill’s claims were made public, Thomas breathed fire and charged. The righteousness, the self-pity, the insistence that he was the target of a conspira­cy! This man toughed his way through by crying foul, readily strong-arming. He raised himself at the expense of women, imagining a pack of feminists sicking him, lump­ing the women’s movement with establishment racism.

And the majority of women said he was telling the truth. 

The majority of women also want the right to choose abortion. Women believe they’re supposed to control what happens inside their bodies — this much the women’s movement has achieved. But women still aren’t sure they have a right to the world. Hill said that sexual harassment happens, that it hurt her, and that Thomas derived plea­sure from humiliating her. She described ordinary sexism, the way society operates. To believe Hill requires taking sexism seriously, and a lot of women don’t.

There are homophobic gays. There are blacks who under­mine black civil rights. Thomas and Hill did that at the EEOC, discrediting affirmative action, eroding protection from bias. Nonetheless, the vast majority of gays and blacks admit they’re dealt injustice, and they resent it. But many women — let’s say, conservatively, a third of them — ­deny the existence of sexism. A large number of women are organized against the interests of women. No other disad­vantaged group contains a sizable segment militating to limit its own freedom and opportunities.

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The women’s movement proffers dignity, selfhood, and independence. It encourages women to admit the truth of their experience. Not everyone, however, wants these op­portunities, and, even if they do, other longings may be more intense. Traditional roles offer women stability, safe­ty, a feeling of being needed and approved. The rub is the price: fewer rights than men and a willingness to be seen as less entitled to those advantages. But who has not at some time paid too much for a hunger?

If you have ever pleaded for love and acceptance — had to plead because you were being denied, overlooked — then you know what it feels like to trade off your dignity for a burning desire. You tell yourself a story: It’s really not so bad, this begging. It really doesn’t cost me that much, and anyway, who cares, I must have love and acceptance or I won’t be able to endure life. At the same time, a secret voice bleats: It’s no good, acceptance on terms that squeeze you into a shape that’s false. It’s better to do without acceptance, if that’s the only way you can get it. Then you tell that voice to shut up.

That’s what Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill have done throughout their careers. Thomas knew he could play cat and mouse with Hill, because her opportunism was so like his own. She would stick with him no matter what, just as he had cleaved to archconservatives, no matter how much he had to downplay the injuries of racism. When Hill was being harassed by Thomas, she told herself that sexism wasn’t all that hurtful. She was so used to making expedi­ent gestures that, only a few months before testifying against Thomas, she claimed she was pleased he’d been nominated to the Supreme Court. Unless Thomas and Hill soft-pedaled the seriousness of racism and sexism, they would have had to make war on the people they counted on to shelter and esteem them.

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It’s not for nothing that Hill and Thomas, two emotional conservatives, are also political conservatives. Political conservatism enforces the social systems that quiet anxi­eties about change. It’s impossible to know that indepen­dence is more appetizing than security until you’ve tasted independence. People who have made radical changes in their lives — left an abusive spouse, broken a drug depen­dency, committed themselves to AIDS activism — invari­ably say that they acted when their condition became intolerable. They discovered that passivity didn’t guarantee security and that the changes that had once seemed so risky were less dangerous than staying put.

But security isn’t the only factor attracting women to the status quo. Sexism is fueled by a deep dislike of women that both women and men feel. Mothers — mostly the pri­mary parent — are all-powerful to both sexes during early life; in reaction, retaliation, women are devalued in the culture. The dislike of women isn’t just intense but eroti­cized. Women as well as men enjoy the degradation of women — sexism gives women a chance not only to be victims, but also fellow tormentors of other women, stand­ing shoulder-to-shoulder with males. People’s feelings about the degradation of men are more confused, a greater sense of transgression infusing enjoyment. The degraded position is equated with being female, females being the ones who lack social power. Thus when a male is beaten, overpowered, he’s seen as losing his man­hood, called a pussy, a cunt.

Most people were embarrassed when they thought Thomas was be­ing humiliated, because he was per­ceived as a symbol of manhood. At the same time people liked seeing Hill described as a liar, a fantasist, a fanatic. Talk about pornography! To many, the hearings were yummy s&m, including the cat fight of four women defending the boss and lashing Hill for being ambitious and willful.

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Anyone who doubts that some women relish female pain need only recall the gloating of J. C. Alvarez as she evoked a lovelorn, jealous Hill. Part of the reason so few Dem­ocratic senators came to Hill’s de­fense was that they enjoyed watch­ing her get it. Hill was a perfect target because she wasn’t entirely powerless; people could victimize her without feeling guilty. She had tried to get up in the world and had succeeded, profiting from her rela­tionship to Thomas. She deserved to be smacked down for playing the game and then complaining — being a bad sport. More irritating to her detractors: she declared that hurting women was wrong.

Throughout the hearings, the divided nature of human response was simplified or denied. Lost were distinctions between sexual harassment and harmless flirting. Flirting disappeared from public discussion, as if all inviting lines might conceal nasty messages. But every woman knows the difference between sex play that’s welcome and being hit on while radiating don’t. That don’t is the crux of sexual harassment. Still, the workplace is undeniably erotic, an atmosphere charged by shared plans and projects, by daily contact. It’s not harassment if both people say yes.

The Bush gang kept insisting that Thomas was decent and therefore couldn’t like pornography or enjoy degrading women. But no one explained why indulging in a polymor­phous fantasy life would make someone indecent. No one mentioned that people can behave decently most of the time and still, on occasion, binge on aggression. That’s what much of the country did when watching senators and witnesses go after Hill.

In order for people to believe that Thomas abused Hill and that his actions were harmful, they have to admit that sexism is wrong and be willing to give it up. But people will be reluctant to do this as long as they think they have to forfeit some part of their erotic life. The idea runs deep that feminism is the end of sex. It’s one reason feminists are accused of hating sex. Another reason is that some feminists — Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin foremost among them — are puritanical, waging campaigns against pornography and eroticism. These people work against their own long-term interests, because the more sexual attitudes are openly exposed, the better chance there is to address them.

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Taking control and surrendering it, cross-dressing as a vacation from identity — all the kinky pursuits Thomas allegedly enjoyed — are basic in the human beast. We’re creatures of drives, appetites, aggressions, desires to escape into fantasy. Ending sexism in society doesn’t mean people can’t play roles in bed, in their heads. That’s where the role playing belongs. If people felt less shame about indulging these impulses in sex, maybe they wouldn’t be as pressured to act them out everywhere else. ❖

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A Christmas Cavil

Late in November, a woman came into an office where I was working, and a group gath­ered to look at the Christmas decorations and stocking stuffers she had just bought in Bloomingdale’s. The woman was especially pleased with a little wooden bird house that made a chirping sound. When she turned and asked good-naturedly for me to affirm that her gifts were indeed treasures, my re­sponse was, “I can’t relate to Christmas. I’m Jewish.” I said it ironically, but I meant it. I said it as if being Jewish, alone, were a suffi­cient explanation for my unwillingness to ap­preciate her toys.

“I’m Jewish, too,” she said. “I do it for my son.”

“I guess I might if I had a kid,” I said, but I’m pretty certain that I wouldn’t.

I’m not seduced by the admittedly attractive seasonal rites that go with Christmas; my alienation is a family legacy. When I think about the Christmases of my youth, I summon up a memory of my parents’ deliberate separation from the events of the holiday, a memory as intact as many Wasps’ idyllic remembrances of cherubim-decked blue spruces and profound feelings of intimacy.

My parents were born in this country, spoke unaccented English, and thought of themselves and their children as Americans. They knew a fair amount about the history of the government under which they at first merely survived and then prospered. My mother rhapsodized about Adlai Stevenson with an ardent expression she reserved for political figures she believed were “good for the Jew.”

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My parents were Americans, but they were Jews before anything else, and that was the anomaly at the root of my somewhat con­fused sense of identity. There was something illogical about being both American and Jew­ish — at least anomalous for the kind of Jew­ish that placed Jewishness first. True Ameri­cans, I learned from my three main sources of information — TV, movies, books — didn’t place anything before being American, never even thought about being American because they were American. And, most significantly, true Americans weren’t, by their very nature, Jewish; they weren’t Moslem or Buddhist either.

On TV, Jews and Buddhists were shown living in America — Molly Goldberg, for ex­ample, or the Japanese “houseboy” on Batchelor Father — but it was nonetheless as­sumed by every TV show and movie and printed word I encountered that to be Ameri­can meant to be Christian. American and Christian went together, automatically, axi­omatically, like mom and apple pie, like Christmas and gift-giving. My mother never baked an apple pie. My mother did not be­have at all like the mother I wished her to imitate, the archetypically American mom on Father Knows Best.

I remember feeling totally outside of Christmas, and confused by the relentless reiteration in the media of the meaning of the “Christmas spirit” and the “Christmas sto­ry.” Promoters of the Christmas spirit campaigned on a platform of love, generosity, harmony, and compassion, and asserted that this spirit embraced everyone. The Christ­mas story seemed to contradict the Christmas spirit because rigid, conservative old Jewish­ness was precisely the ethos against which Christ had forged his radical new ideology.

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I had felt excluded from baptisms and communions, but they didn’t have the same weight as Christmas. And besides, there were for all of these rituals analogous occasions in Jewish religious practice. But no one could persuade a child that Chanukah — forgive me — could hold a candle to Christmas. To a hungry kid, Chanukah was to Christmas what matzoh is to glazed ham with all the trimmings. Christmas was not simply a religious holiday — it steered the country, sug­gesting that a universal likeness of spirit and mind existed among the populace. Christ­mas, the true country within the country, had its own language, music, art, and sym­bolism. I felt exiled.

In reality, no one said that Jews could not celebrate Christmas. Many of my friends and their parents bought trees (some called them “Chanukah bushes”) and presents, placed wreathes on their doors, sent Christmas cards, and gave Christmas parties. My best friend lived in an “assimilated” fam­ily that enacted a completely authentic-look­ing Christmas. I coveted the boxes wrapped in metallic red and blue paper, which re­mained unopened for weeks until Christmas morning. It was that restraint, especially, that I couldn’t even fathom in my family.

Observing my friend’s pseudo-Christmas was the closest I ever came to taking part in a Christmas celebration. When I asked my parents why we couldn’t have a tree and exchange gifts, their answer was always un­equivocal and unamplified: “Because we’re Jewish.”

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I never knew exactly what this meant to them. My parents were not observant Jews; I believe they were atheists. Their sense of Jewishness came from the custom of being Jews and, most significantly, from the exis­tence of anti-Semitism and their experience of anti-Semitism. The word “Jew” evoked sentimental feeling in my parents, the way Fiddler on the Roof did, but as my parents lived their lives, the word “Jew” was, in fact, defined exclusively in political terms. It was defined with relationship to words like “re­stricted,” “pogrom,” “Auschwitz.”

I can see now that my parents refused to participate in Christmas because they felt it would have meant denying their Jewishness, and they understood that one goal of anti­-Semitism has always been to get Jews to deny their Jewishness. My parents believed that to go along with the pressure to go along with the celebrations of the Christian world would have meant a minor but nonetheless clear-cut victory for the forces of anti-Semitism.

For a long time I resisted my parents’ at­tempts to pass on their amorphously ex­pressed identity as Jews. This identity was bound up in ridiculous things like inquiries about which movie actors were or were not “really Jewish” despite their stage names. My parents seemed paranoid and xenophob­ic, tending to view a good deal of Western culture as either overtly or latently anti-Jew­ish. But somewhere along the line — I think it was around the time I read in depth about World War II and the Holocaust — I adopted an attitude toward Jewishness that turns out to be very close to theirs.

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I assert my Jewishness as an act of defiance against any pressure I feel to deny Jewish­ness. I assert my Jewishness every time I hear an anti-Semitic remark. I regard as mildly anti-Semitic being related to as a Jew by non-Jews — e.g., “We bought these bagels and lox especially for you.” I see a kind of anti-Jewishness in the omission of Jews from what is represented as a cross-section of real Ameri­can life; this is the case in almost all TV soap operas, which do feature characters with other-than-Jewish ethnic names and ethnical­ly oriented tastes and interests.

I feel most American outside America. I feel most Jewish at Christmas. I resist the American celebration of Christmas chiefly because it assents to the illusion that we are all alike, when we are not — and, more importantly, that we all wish to be inside, when some of us now prefer to be outside. The nonnegotiable publicness of Christmas, the universal assumption that everyone can re­joice in Christ’s birth, everyone can appreci­ate or wants to see festooned Christmas trees, wants to see Santa Clauses on street corners and hear Christmas music piped out of win­dows and in department stores, is a denial — ­albeit temporary — of the existence of non­-Christians. At Christmas time, non-Christians are omitted from the psychic life of this country, and although this omission may be relatively harmless, it’s anti-Jew, anti-Bud­dhist, and anti-Moslem. It’s anti-Other.

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Is Murphy Brown Coming Back Just in Time?

“I better warn you up front, I’m not gonna be like other mothers,” the sitcom character Murphy Brown told her newborn son, Avery, at the end of the series’ fourth season in 1992.

Since Candice Bergen’s fictional news anchor was planning to raise the baby in the absence of his father, that particular Murphy Brown episode was shortly dragged into the presidential election when Vice President Dan Quayle, in a major policy speech, attacked it on moral grounds: “It doesn’t help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another ‘lifestyle choice.’ I know it is not fashionable to talk about moral values, but we need to do it. Even though our cultural leaders in Hollywood, network TV, the national newspapers routinely jeer at them, I think that most of us in this room know that some things are good, and other things are wrong. Now it’s time to make the discussion public.”

With Murphy Brown returning to the airwaves amid an even more volatile culture war, we turn to the first drafts of criticism to see how the show was initially received.

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In the October 25, 1988, edition, Laurie Stone reviewed the show and two other debuting sitcoms, Roseanne and Baby Boom, noting, “Based on the pilots, the shows are not equally well-crafted or amusing, but in all the central female mind is sharper than its surround.” Stone reports that “sentimentality is the price [Roseanne] pays for her smart mouth,” while the neurosis of the Murphy Brown character “is allowed to linger and trouble. It’s not instantly drained of threat, as it was on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show.”

A year later, as the show settled into the culture, media critic Elvis Mitchell wondered in print about the show’s star: “After all, this is Candice Bergen, who has shown an ability to make fun of herself that’s quite engaging. But Murphy Brown is so ingeniously structured, and the press surrounding the show focuses on so many extraneous things — like Bergen’s being a real person (proof: standing around and passing out donuts and plasma to the crew when they’re tired) — that one thing doesn’t ever really come up. Which is — just between you and me — what Bergen does isn’t really acting, is it?”

By December of 1990, the popular Murphy Brown rated its own supposedly learned study, which the ever-animated Mim Udovitch reviewed in the Voice Literary Supplement. Murphy Brown: Anatomy of a Sitcom was a slight enough volume that Udovitch also critiqued studies of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and a book titled Sweethearts of ’60s TV in the same article. “The most interesting (by which I mean the only interesting) observation in any of the three works under review,” Udovitch writes, “occurs on page eight of Murphy Brown: ‘One seldom-noted fact about the sitcoms was the preponderance of women in lead roles. Indeed, most of the popular series of the fifties carried female names in the title.’ Since it’s outside their Murphocentric focus [authors Robert S. Alley and Irby B. Brown] do not add, as they might, that there is still a somewhat equitable proportion of lead female characters on sitcoms, particularly relative to other media, such as film. Nor do they explore the deeper-than-face-value reason for this explosion of comparable worth, since to do so would run contrary to their entire thesis that Murphy Brown is a force for social good. It is possible, for example, that television is a medium unique in its ability to simultaneously glorify and reduce, making it the most efficient instrument available for the dissemination of a male view of tiny, empedestaled women, sort of an electronic dollhouse for the masses.”

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Finally, Marc Cooper weighs in on Dan Quayle’s 1992 campaign, pointing out that the fundraising breakfast where the veep attacked Brown’s morals was held in a “San Fernando Valley neighborhood only a stone’s throw from the soundstages of the feared Murphy Brown.” Quayle — who famously could not spell potato — was every bit as ham-fisted a demagogue as President Trump, only prettier and less overtly savage. Cooper reports on the “entertainment values” at the heart of the vacuous senator from Indiana’s campaign: “[The mention of Quayle’s name] evokes no association with previous thinkers, legislators, or statesmen, but only with TV images: part Michael J. Fox, part Doogie Howser, a little Dobie Gillis, and a whole lot of Gilligan.”

Little did we know, half a century ago, just how awful having a TV personality for president would turn out to be.

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Anita Hill vs. Clarence Thomas: When Conservatives Nipped the Concept of Sexual Harassment in the Bud

It was the most riveting daytime soap opera since the Watergate hearings — an all-male chorus line of U.S. senators attacking the morals and motives of Anita Hill, a conservative law professor who had accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Thomas went on to be narrowly confirmed by the Senate, 52-48.

As Richard Goldstein reported in his postmortem in the October 29, 1991, issue of the Voice, “If feminists regard the Thomas hearings as a failure, the right truly will have won. In reality, this was an annunciation of a new, gender-based politics, with the potential to challenge the traditional configuration of left and right.” Well, as the current confirmation hearings on Brett Kavanaugh are revealing, perhaps the challenge was not strong enough. That said, Goldstein also pointed out how even back then conservatives were happy to demonize the press: “Here was a network of women journalists speaking truth to entrenched male power. The right lost no time in demanding their heads.”

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Amy Taubin zeroed in on the optics coming out of the hearing room: “Caught off guard, the TV people could do little more than set up their cameras and roll tape, while the White House was forced to improvise damage-control tactics that shifted daily.” The Voice film critic exposed the holes in the GOP’s script: “Understanding that TV is nothing if not narrative, the Republicans got to work like hack writers from Troma Films, tossing out one high concept after another. Friday’s script — with Hill the dupe of a satanic, left-wing conspiracy — developed second-act problems when they couldn’t work her support for [conservative judge Robert] Bork into the story line. Saturday was the spurned woman scenario; with the mention of Fatal Attraction, 11 courtesy calls became proof of erotomania. By Sunday, the scorned woman had developed delusions — possibly to cancel any weight that Hill’s successful polygraph test might carry.”

Laurie Stone asked why polls showed that a majority of women believed Thomas, even though “Hill passed a lie detector test. She had nothing to gain and everything to lose by testifying. She spoke credibly, weaving a story about Thomas he then proceeded to act out. Hill described a man who was crude, inept, driven. He asked for a date but couldn’t take no for an answer. He hammered away, wanting to know why he was being turned down. He used his authority to feel big at the expense of making a woman feel small.” Stone also discusses the social relations that got steamrolled by the male senators: “Throughout the hearings, the divided nature of human response was simplified or denied. Lost were distinctions between sexual harassment and harmless flirting. Flirting disappeared from public discussion, as if all inviting lines might conceal nasty messages. But every woman knows the difference between sex play that’s welcome and being hit on while radiating don’t. That don’t is the crux of sexual harassment.”

And finally, the absurdity of an all-male bevy of senators closing ranks around a big fan of the porn actor Long Dong Silver is captured in Lynda Barry’s “A Cock & Bull Story.”